Aspirin in the Stone Age?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

July 2007

"Go back to your cave, take two pieces of willow bark, and see me in the morning," says the Stone-Age medicine man to his patient.

Not a likely scenario but as many readers know, acetylsalicylic acid, marketed as Aspirin by Bayer Pharmaceuticals more than a century ago, is similar to a chemical in the bark of the willow tree. There probably aren't enough willows in existence for all the aspirin we need. The world's intake is 50 billion tablets a year and factories around the globe synthesize it by the ton. Ancient healers probably discovered the pain-relieving effects of willow bark eons ago and some historians believe that Greek physicians in the time of Hippocrates, around 500 B.C., used it.

Aspirin-like substances called salicylates are widespread in fruits and vegetables and vegetarians have higher blood levels of salicylates than non-vegetarians. With their very high intake of plant-based foods, Stone Agers probably did, too. In just the past few years the value of salicylates has gotten a remarkable boost.

Coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes are common in obese persons and the answer may lie in the fat itself. Fat cells don't just sit there. They produce inflammatory substances that promote heart disease and diabetes. Salicylates, including aspirin, diminish inflammation. That may be why persons who include a generous amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet are less likely to have heart attacks than those who do not.

Could natural salicylates reduce the risk of some cancers? There is strong evidence that taking aspirin or maintaining a high intake of fruits and vegetables will lower your risk of colon cancer and perhaps other cancers such as those of the esophagus and pancreas.

Salicylates reduce the tendency of the blood to clot and for a couple of decades that was the rationale for suggesting that persons at risk of heart attack would benefit from taking an aspirin every day. However, a full-sized daily aspirin causes irritation and bleeding within the lining of the stomach in so many persons that a lower dose became more popular. As a result, there are more adults than children who take baby aspirin. (Aspirin has been associated with a serious illness in children known as Reye syndrome, and pediatricians have sharply curtailed its use.)

During thousands of generations that preceded ours, humans acquired knowledge of herbs through trial and error, and it was not all error. Barely a half-dozen generations ago, physicians still relied on plant sources for almost all the medicines they dispensed. The wisdom of nature may be on the verge of a comeback as scientists scour the forests and the jungles of the globe for natural plant compounds that have medicinal value. Mushroom extracts have antiviral and anticancer properties; saponins from tree bark lower cholesterol; resveratrol in grape skins is heart-protective.

Nature nourished our Stone Age ancestors with hundreds of different types of plant foods for a reason: they helped to guarantee their survival. We should follow their example and make our diet more like theirs.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.